Academic journal article German Quarterly

German and American Dream Houses: Buildings and Biographies in Gregor Hens's Himmelssturz and Monika Maron's Endmoränen

Academic journal article German Quarterly

German and American Dream Houses: Buildings and Biographies in Gregor Hens's Himmelssturz and Monika Maron's Endmoränen

Article excerpt

For centuries, houses have played a crucial role in the imagination of writers and artists. Like love or travel, with which they share the key element of desire, houses belong to the basic inventory of literary narratives and traditions. A universal building block of culture, houses encompass the human need for shelter and express the material as well as symbolic authority that architectural structures grant human beings over nature and people (Danto 8-9). Houses both reflect and shape the psychological, socio-economic, and political conditions of those who live in them; they embody subjectivity, changing regimens of taste, style, and power. Through the numerous discourses involved, such as architecture, economy, and aesthetics, they form a dense, multi-layered and over-determined arrangement of materials and signs. People need a place to live, a place where they can make a home and to which they can return, and the interplay between dwelling and traveling, stasis and movement or between being house bound and travel bound, has yielded ample fictional material.1 Given the ever increasing globalization of capital and goods and the migration of vast numbers of people, German cultural studies, like their Anglo-American counterparts, have tended to focus more on the second part of this pendulum-swing: transition and movement. In this article, I propose to look at the other part, the house, the point from which any traffic originates; I investigate how the houses in two novels-Gregor Hens's Himmelssturz (2002) and Monika Maron's Endmoränen (2002) -are linked to a biographical narrative and to its local as well as global ties to German society today. Globalization continues, of course, to be a contentious term and concept, loathed as well as celebrated for the scale of its economic and cultural transformations of traditions and customs, changes perceived as spearheaded by America.2 Since America's role in shaping the global imaginary is a topic to which both novels pay attention, they lend themselves particularly well to explorations of local bonds and global movements.

The paradigm of German cultural studies is necessarily shaped by "categories that are inherently relevant to contemporary societies" (Kacandes 10). While my interpretation of the two novels draws on a number of critical concepts listed by Kacandes, such as gender, identity, and representation (10), it analyzes these within a specific material reality in order to better understand the ways in which selfhood, society, and materiality intersect and influence each other. In houses, with their very specific location, history, architectural features and the hopes and desires invested in them by their occupants, the interplay of subjectivity and society is vividly on display. The house is thus conceived not as a stage, a mere backdrop for the more important forces of culture such as ideology, gender, generation, or power (Birdwell-Pheasant 1) but as a space in which and through which these factors are shaped and articulated.

Himmelssturz and Endmoränen prominently feature a building project, and they construct the highly conflicted biographical narrative of their protagonists through the purchase, design, or renovation of a house.3 The main characters in the two novels try to recapture a coherent, authentic sense of self and each of them eventually realizes the difficulty, if not futility of this process, departing in the end both from a house and perhaps also from the personality it was supposed to shelter. Since creating a new house or environment always involves "a fiction of the life intended to be lived there" (Tristram 2), the protagonists' search for a fulfilled life is shaped as well as reflected by the houses that they inhabit or plan to build. While the two works frame this search within a different thematic context-Hens's first-person narrator is struggling with a failed marriage and death while Maron's counterpart is having to come to terms with aging-they both employ the house to symbolize the protagonists' relationships with themselves and others as well as distinct cultural trends. …

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